Play the superhero, then watch your career go up, up and away

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Comebacks don't come much sweeter. Just seven years after he was booted off "Ally McBeal" following one drug arrest too many, Robert Downey Jr. has proved his mettle, presiding over the $102.1 million opening of "Iron Man." The actor who couldn't even get bonded when Woody Allen wanted to cast him in 2004's "Melinda and Melinda" now has the ultimate Hollywood security: a solid-gold franchise all his own.

But just as the Marvel Studios-produced adaptation underscores Downey's career resuscitation, it also offers further evidence that playing a comic book hero, once considered a dubious career movie, has become an assignment even Oscar-nominated stars are happy to land.

Poor George Reeves. Film stardom had eluded him when he took a job in the 1951 B-movie "Superman and the Mole-Men," which led to the "Adventures of Superman" TV series that aired from 1952-58. It turned Reeves into a celebrity, but he chafed in his Superman tights, convinced that he'd never break out of his new dual identity as the mild-mannered Clark Kent and the indestructible Man of Steel.

His fears were realized when he died under mysterious circumstances in 1959: "TV 'Superman' Kills Self," the New York Post headline screamed.

Reeves might have gotten little respect, but by the late '70s playing superheroes took on new stature when comic book movies were upgraded to A-list productions — thanks mostly to the efforts of father-son producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who gambled more than $50 million on their bet that, given improving special effects, "Superman: The Movie" could convince audiences that a man could fly.

Working with director Richard Donner, the Salkinds also upped the casting ante, paying Marlon Brando $3.7 million plus significant points for 12 days of work — ultimately spread out between 1978's "Superman" and its sequel — playing Superman's father, Jor-El. Gene Hackman, another Oscar winner, came on board as the villainous Lex Luthor to provide further cred.

A decade later, when Warner Bros. decided to bring Batman to the big screen, it followed a similar gambit, securing Jack Nicholson for a juicy turn as the Joker with a $6 million payday plus lucrative pieces of boxoffice and merchandising that by some estimates eventually netted him as much as $60 million.

For less established actors, though, playing a superhero — as opposed to a scene-stealing villain — still entailed a certain degree of risk. Christopher Reeve was a virtual unknown when he scored his first starring role in "Superman." Although he quickly followed up his first Superman outing with the period romance "Somewhere in Time," followed by the cat-and-mouse thriller "Deathtrap," the actor never found significant traction at the boxoffice outside of his four "Superman" movies, the first of which grossed $134.2 million domestically.

Brandon Routh, another clean-cut actor who donned the super suit in 2006 for Warners' "Superman Returns," now faces a similar challenge. And Tobey Maguire, even though he already had a substantial body of film work behind him when he first slipped into Spider-Man's form-fitting outfit, also has yet to prove himself as a boxoffice draw beyond that franchise.

But now that Marvel is making its own movies, gearing up to bring a whole new roster of superheroes to the screen, actors are likely to be vying to play the heroes and villains in future movies. (There's even a surprise appearance by another Oscar nominee, trying on another Marvel superhero for size, at the end of the "Iron Man" credits.)

An actor of Downey's caliber doesn't have to worry about typecasting; he's already finished filming two roles that couldn't be more different: a method actor who knows no limits in the comedy "Tropic Thunder" and a newspaper columnist in the drama "The Soloist." And with the gold-plated "Iron Man" on his résumé, he's likely to be the envy of his peers.

Taking the comic book route is no longer considered slumming. Instead, it's the height of respectability.

Gregg Kilday can be reached at gregg.kilday@THR.com.
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